'Foreclosure tourism' is a ticket to opportunity

The buyers on the bus seek dream deals on the homes where other families' dreams once lived.

Wendy A. Hoke
ReMax Haven Realty's shuttle took nine hopeful buyers to houses like the red split-level on Cromwell Drive in the Cleveland suburb of Solon.
Wendy A. Hoke
Foreclosure 'tourists': The increase in homes taken back by lenders has created the new business of bus tours of available homes, such as ReMax Haven Realty's shuttle.

Down tree-canopied Cromwell Drive – an entry point to middle-class America with its split levels, college pennants flapping in the breeze, and two newer cars in every driveway – lies the beginning and the end of the American dream.

The red split-level home at 33313 Cromwell Dr. looks as if it was someone's proudly kept dream home. And the "for sale" sign in the front yard seems innocent enough. But behind it lies a message of the angst of a family that just couldn't manage. Maybe they didn't pay close-enough attention to the balloon payment schedule; maybe they didn't have a choice in the refinancing process. Maybe someone lost a job, got sick, or died.

Though the empty house suggests the end of the dream for one family, this is still America – where legions of dreamers are ready to take their place. And in true American fashion, there's someone selling tickets to that place – on the foreclosure bus tour.

Complete with box lunches and lemonade – and a crew of onboard experts including a home inspector, mortgage lender, and representative of a title company – ReMax Haven Realty's foreclosure bus tour takes hopeful homeowners, at $15 a seat, to see the bank-owned homes that are in "short sale."

It's a nationwide trend: The foreclosure crisis – one in every 519 American households received a foreclosure filing in April, up 65 percent from a year ago – doesn't stop at the well-manicured boundaries of these affluent suburbs. Its reach extends into every neighborhood and income level. Maybe you've seen the foreclosure tours in your own neighborhood. They can be a welcome sight when your neighbor's home sits vacant for months on end.

But they can be a disconcerting sight, too. Home ownership is what defines us as Americans. Location, size, and style say more about who we are and what we want in life than any backyard conversation can. But what happens when living the dream costs too much? The neighbors – the ones you chatted with on summer evenings in the driveway about the Cavaliers' chances in the playoffs or the condition of your lawn – vanish without a word.

Realtors will tell you that foreclosures hit less than 10 percent of all homeowners. That 90 percent of us pay our bills on time and keep our homes. But that doesn't begin to tell the story that plays out on your street, or my street, or this street that was once "their" street.

• • •

C.J. Hartson, the agent who organized today's tour for nine hopeful homeowners to seven bank-owned houses in the middle-class Solon and Chagrin Falls suburbs of Cleveland, says that "banks don't want to hold onto the homes, so there are opportunities for some deals for buyers."

On the ride out to the first home, in Chagrin Falls, known for its New England atmosphere and 100-year-old architecture, the home seekers have few expectations. They want to see what their money will buy.

Some tours across the country require that participants prequalify for loans. That's not the case on this tour. It doesn't matter, because everyone in the group is an interested buyer.

Henry Bertorelli, a retired power company employee, has been living in an apartment. He admits that the circumstances of foreclosure are "depressing," but he's looking for a good deal on a modest home and had heard a report about foreclosure tours on National Public Radio. Dee Alexander and her two daughters are looking for a good-sized home and have marked a star by the last – and largest – on the tour. Sidney Brown, a businessman in constant cellphone and BlackBerry motion, is single, but looking for a spacious home. Another middle-aged couple follows the bus by car.

Mr. Hartson encourages the buyers to see beyond the surface, mentioning that home repair loans are available through the Federal Housing Administration. Buyers look leery, but quickly turn back to their information packets.

After circling a block of classically elegant houses, the bus stops at the first home: the price tag is $189,900. Curb appeal is lacking, but its Craftsman-style detail makes the interior of the three-bedroom house architecturally interesting. A walk down the driveway to the backyard shows a worn basketball hoop, an overturned trash can, and a tire swing hanging from a giant tulip tree.

The kitchen floors reveal years of wear – kids' cleats, that darned dog – all leaving their mark. The heavy odor of cigarette smoke lingers as if the last butt was smashed on the way out. A needlepoint-covered brick still holds an upstairs bedroom door open. And "Judy" painted a bra on the hardwood floor of her bedroom with the inscription, "2000 36C."

"Does anyone have any questions about the house?" asks Phillip Wells, a home inspector who, at each stop, checks electrical service, roofs, furnaces, windows, foundations, and looks for water damage. Armed with his flashlight and knowledge, he's the most valuable passenger.

After hearing a few tips on what to look for, the group pulls up to the next home – a large four-bedroom, three-bath Cape with an in-law suite on nearly two acres – asking price is $290,000.

Upstairs in the master bedroom, leaning against the wall are a headboard and large mirror. Maybe these – and the cradle filled with dolls in the attic – didn't fit in the truck when the homeowners moved. No room, no time to think about toys. Those things stayed behind just like their name engraved on the door knocker.

There's not been a lot of buzz about the homes, until the bus pulls up to the next-to-the-last stop – the red split-level on Cromwell Drive in Solon.

The foreclosure "tourists" who braved the spring rain file off the mini-charter bus nodding approval at this $189,000 three-bedroom, 2-1/2-bath home with grand old trees and fresh mulch in the beds.

Someone loved this house, tried hard to sell it. The sticklike crab-apple tree in the backyard still has a cardboard sleeve covering its trunk. Price tags still dangle from the euonymus plants in the front bed. Propped inside the garage are "for sale" signs. They tried to sell on their own. A sale didn't come in time.

While some homeowners in foreclosure take out their anger by ripping out appliances, plumbing, and cabinetry, others like this home's owners leave a little of their heart, along with the Christmas wreath in the garage.

"[It's] the kind of house that makes you wonder what went wrong," says Hartson.

From the living room, Ms. Alexander calls her teenage daughter on her cellphone to come off the bus and check it out. "This is nice," she says, as her younger daughter runs excitedly from room to room. "But I'm waiting to see the Winchester house."

That house is a large, newer home in a well-off neighborhood. Though the grass and shrubs are overgrown, the four-bedroom home has curb appeal and is priced at $269,900.

No sooner are the buyers in the house when two neighbors ask if they can have a look. It's the second time this home is in foreclosure, they say. The first owner's husband died, and she lost the house. The second, the neighbors believe, tried to do a quick rehab for resale.

"It was OK, but I'm concerned about the roof and the dampness in the basement," says Alexander. She was glad to have the home inspector on the tour. "I'm looking for something a little bigger," she says. Mr. Brown, too, is looking for a good deal on a house in a higher price range.

• • •

They want their house with the lush land and two cars in the driveway – this kind of homeownership is hard-wired into the American psyche.

When all is lost, either through our own poor choices or circumstances beyond our control, so, too, is a bit of America. But for these foreclosure bus tourists – and others like them across the country – the American dream endures.

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